May high school graduations signify an important milestone - and not just for graduating seniors.
This past school year, not one student died in a car wreck. In the three years before that, 10 Columbia County teens died on county roads..
Kari Poss, Columbia County Juvenile Court Traffic coordinator, said she was "so excited'' about ending that trend.
Poss runs a class for teens who receive community service in Juvenile Court for traffic offenses. In the class, offenders learn about driving safety and the law. They also see the worst that can happen - a board displays photos of each of the 10 teens who died.
"I don't want any more kids on my board," Poss said she tells each class.
Ryan Howell, a 17-year-old Greenbrier High School student, was the most recent teen to die in a car crash in Columbia County. On Feb. 27, 2005, his car went off a curvy and wet William Few Parkway and struck a utility pole as he headed home from work.
Lakeside High School student Brandon Layton, 18, was killed Feb. 28, 2003, when his car was struck by a driver going the wrong way on River Watch Parkway.
In the two years between Ryan's and Brandon's deaths, eight other teens died in vehicle crashes. The roadside memorials for them serve as reminders to teen drivers to be careful.
"When people like Ryan die, people like me, we don't forget about that," said Kim Linton, 16, a Greenbrier High School junior who knew Ryan through the Columbia County Sheriff's Office Explorer program. "I go on William Few all the time and I am always thinking about that, and I am always a little bit more careful than I would have been if I didn't know."
County officials agree that something good has come from the deaths of the 10 teens - awareness, education and caution.
Dr. Sandra Carraway, an assistant superintendent of student learning for the school board, was principal of Greenbrier High School the years the school lost four students - Ryan; Shane Williams and Daniel Hall, both 17, on April 15, 2003; and Lea Christine Turner, 17, on Aug. 10, 2004.
After Shane and Daniel were killed, Carraway said teachers and students marched into action, starting teen driving education programs through the Students Against Destructive Decisions organization, including signing safe driving and seat belt pledges, creating "How's My Driving?" stickers for student cars and installing speed bumps and signs lining the school's exit encouraging safe driving.
"Some of the worst things that I have ever lived through was being the principal in a school and having our student body so distraught by (the wreck that killed Shane and Daniel) and then these parents of children who they'll never hold again. It's horrible,'' Carraway said. "We wanted to do anything that we could do to make sure that didn't happen again."
Kim's mother, Debbie Linton, said she and her husband, Doug, wanted to make sure their daughter had as much preparation a possible before hitting the road solo.
The Evans couple didn't let Kim get her license for six months after she turned 16, and they enrolled her in every drivers education course they could find, including school-sponsored courses, night driving and private driving classes and PRIDE (Parents Reducing Incidents of Driver Error).
"We just did as much as we could to educate her. It sounds like we went overboard on it," Debbie Linton said. "We did the logs. We went over and above all the hours that she needed. The drivers out there are just crazy. We just wanted her to understand that she had to be on the defensive all the time.''
The Lintons also enrolled Kim in the sheriff's office's STOPPED program, in which a sticker is placed on enrolled vehicles and parents are notified any time the car is pulled over with a driver younger than 21. Deputy Kara McGahee said about 170 vehicles are enrolled in the program.
"It is definitely an incentive, just because I don't want my parents angry with me," Kim said of the program. "But it is also my knowing that I want to be safe, because I don't want to injure myself or anybody else, too.
"When I got that, it made me think about it. I do remember all the time that I have it on my car. I guess it does make me drive a little more safely."
Debbie Linton said she likes the program because it gives her the opportunity to take further measures with her daughter in addition to any consequences Kim might face with the sheriff's office, though she said she believes Kim would tell her parents if she did get pulled over.
"But the program is available as one more tool that we could use to help educate her and train her," she said.
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